The Outrage Makers: Belle Gibson, Zaky Mallah And How Big Media Benefits

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The furore over Zaky Mallah seems to me to have a noticeable parallel to the case of Belle Gibson. Specifically: sections of the media expressing disgust and outrage at carefully selected targets.

Recall the case of Zaky Mallah. Mallah was selected as one of the people to ask a question on Q&A, the dreadful panel show on the ABC. When host Tony Jones let him follow up in response to a provocative assertion by a Liberal MP that Mallah should be expelled from Australia, Mallah responded with the not altogether helpful claim: “The Liberals have just justified to many Australian Muslims in the Australian community, tonight, to leave and go to Syria and fight for ISIL because of ministers like him.”

Even though Mallah has previously appeared on SBS, Channel 10 (repeatedly), the BBC, 3AW radio, wrote for the Guardian, and reportedly gave an interview to the Australian in 2012, right-wing media and political outrage quickly honed in on the ABC as the chief enemy.

Murdoch’s various tabloids around the country responded with front pages identifying the ABC with ISIS. The Courier Mail seemed to have ABC’s managing director as an ISIS jihadi on its front page: “IT’S YOUR ABC”. The Hun announced “ABC OF JIHAD”, claiming “terror crisis grips network”. The Daily Telegraph like the Hun had Mallah with a big gun on its front page, screaming “TERROR VISION”: “How dare the taxpayer funded ABC” and so on. Similar abuse wasn’t directed at Channel 10, the Australian, or the Guardian.

The reason isn’t hard to understand. The Murdoch press and Tony Abbott have long hated the ABC, and this is a useful way to get stuck into it. The ABC competes with the Murdoch press, and surveys show Australians have more trust for the ABC than Murdoch’s outlets (and Fairfax too). However much Murdoch’s hacks rail against the ABC – and however meekly the ABC bears those criticisms – the public still trusts the ABC.

It’s also worth noting Malcolm Turnbull joined in the right-wing attacks on the ABC. When he was in opposition, Turnbull loved to promise a “free” and “independent” ABC, savaging the idea of government control over the ABC. Now that he’s in government, he’s shamelessly joined the campaign to bully and intimidate the ABC into greater subservience to power.

This isn’t to say that the ABC doesn’t deserve criticism for giving a platform to Mr Mallah. As I showed last week, Mallah is an enthusiast for Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al Qaeda branch in Syria. Some ignorant Australian journalists have defended the ABC by saying that Mallah is now “reformed” (?), or a “moderate”, because he doesn’t support ISIS. Just al Qaeda in Syria. It’s a strange day in Australia when al Qaeda is considered moderate. It’s also noticeable that media discussion continues to ignore Mallah’s support for Jabhat al-Nusra.

The ABC does deserve criticism – but the same kind of criticism as (say) channel 10, or the Australian. Not as conscious supporters of terrorism, but for the kind of ignorance that leads to them promoting someone like Mallah.

Which is comparable to the case of Belle Gibson. Gibson launched an app called The Whole Pantry in 2013. It sold for $3.79, and was downloaded 300,000 times. The prestigious publisher Penguin Books – best known to some of us for its classics – published her book by 2014. Gibson had close to 200,000 followers on Instagram. 

Why did she have so many admirers and enthusiasts? Because her recipes came with a life-story. Reconstructing her life-story by now is difficult. Yet this is how she was presented to the public. She dropped out of high school in year 10. When she was 20 (or possibly 17), in 2009, she claimed that she suffered a stroke after being given a vaccine to protect against cervical cancer. She then acquired a brain tumour, and was told she’d be dead within four months.

After two months, Gibson decided chemotherapy and radiotherapy weren’t for her. She started “a quest to heal myself naturally… empowering myself to save my own life, through nutrition, patience, determination and love – as well as vitamin and Ayurvedic treatments, craniosacral therapy, and a whole lot of other treatments”. Which is a nice story – who wouldn’t like for cancer to be cured with “patience”, “love” and “nutrition”?

Despite her supposed battle with brain cancer – without the benefits of any actual medical treatment, Gibson appeared strangely healthy. Her followers were apparently deeply impressed by her courage and resilience during what they imagined was her battle with cancer. In July last year, Gibson had some upsetting news for her followers:

“With frustration and ache in my heart … it hurts me to find space tonight to let you all know with love and strength that I’ve been diagnosed with a third and forth cancer”…“I have cancer in my blood, spleen, brain, uterus and liver. I am hurting… I wanted to respectfully let you each know, and hand some of the energy over to the greater community, my team and @thewholepantry… please don’t carry my pain. I’ve got this.”

By my count, that’s five cancers. Perhaps the fifth comes free with the third and fourth ones. I imagine her followers, awed by how she had battled cancer so far, were duly impressed that she was going to carry her own pain. Elle magazine named her their most inspiring woman of the year.

Some people have claimed that Gibson is simply a scam artist. Others think she’s mentally ill – either a pathological liar, or perhaps has Munchausen’s Syndrome.

Either way, some of the appeal of Gibson’s persona is understandable. People battling serious illnesses like cancer are often quite desperate. Such people – and their friends and family – understandably might want to cling to any sliver of hope, however crazy or unreasonable it might seem.

Modern medicine cannot cure many serious conditions, and for others, it only offers a slim hope of recovery. Saying that you can cure something that medicine can’t, and all you have to do is eat certain types of food, or “empower yourself” through some naturalistic program is the kind of thing that is easy to sell, because it bases itself on the desperation of the vulnerable.

In March this year, Gibson’s story unravelled. Beau Donnelly and Nick Toscano at Fairfax noted that she’d promised to donate $300,000 of the money she earned to charity. She hadn’t done so. She held a fundraiser in December 2013. Yet the funds she raised seemed to be earmarked for herself.

After Fairfax investigated, she donated $1,000 – in March 2015. In May, she had a second fundraiser, thanking everyone for raising $5,000. She reminded her followers: "Don't forget – for every app downloaded until this Sunday, your purchase goes straight to The 2h Project and the Bumi Sehat Foundation to prevent maternal and infant death”.

Gibson then claimed she had only raised $2,800 – not enough to divide, and so she gave it to the Bumi Sehat Foundation. Who promptly denied getting any money from her. She claimed there were “cash-flow” problems for 15 months of delay. Which is why instead of donating $300,000 – as she claimed she had done – only $7,000 of her donations could be confirmed.

The Australian also dug into her stories of cancer, and they quickly unravelled. Did she ever have cancer? “No. None of its true” she admitted. Most recently, she appeared on 60 Minutes. The only scan of her brain that Gibson could produce was in response to her fear that she had multiple sclerosis. A doctor explained to her that she didn’t. In 2011. That’s two years after she claimed she got cancer, two years before she launched her app and public persona.

She has a new sob story about how someone tricked her into thinking that she had cancer which – well, perhaps her more devoted followers might believe. Gibson earlier claimed that a reason she had pushed her scam was because of a difficult childhood, helping out with her brother, who she claimed was autistic. Not actually autistic, he was not entirely enthusiastic about being dragged into her attempts to justify her scam.

The media has responded with self-righteous disgust to Gibson. In one of the milder formulations, Women’s Weekly asked “is this young woman really capable of masterminding one of the biggest hoaxes in recent history?" Which, really, is the wrong question.

The claim that cancer can be cured through “nutrition”, “love” and so on should have struck most people as bullshit. Certainly, the huge media and publishing companies that feted her and promoted her nonsense would have had a few people within them capable of scepticism when someone makes the kind of claims Gibson makes.

Media Watch reviewed the sorry record. None of the people who promoted Gibson’s story “apparently bothered to check if it was true. Not the publishers at Penguin. Nor the chaps at Apple. Nor a parade of media admirers at”:

The Sunday Telegraph,
News.com.au,
Cosmopolitan,
Australian Women’s Health,
Marie Claire,
Elle,
And Channel Seven’s Sunrise among others.

A columnist at News.com.au duly wrote about her outrage when watching Gibson’s 60 Minutes interview. Melissa Hoyer, with almost 50,000 followers, wrote, apparently without irony: “The duped charities, big corporations, book publishers, app designers and most importantly, those who faithfully followed her teachings could only have been left feeling disgusted.” Our hearts should go out to the poor big corporations, book publishers and app designers, which were “duped” into earning fortunes.

Dr Darren Saunders, a researcher for the Garvan Institute, observed “It’s simple. There is no evidence that diet works as a replacement for chemotherapy, surgery or radiotherapy to treat cancer… I’m no journalist, but I’d think it would have been very easy to ask some very basic questions of her story.”

He noted the obvious: “Belle Gibson’s enablers are getting off far too lightly… The journos, editors etc. who reported her story without doing any basic fact checking or testing her claims. What about her publisher and the people pushing PR for her books and apps? … they are all complicit.” Furthermore, “Without naming names, some of the same people and organisations that gave her unfiltered PR are the same ones now crying out about the fraud”.

It’s a good thing he didn’t name names, because it’s an apt point for readers at News.com.au to consider.

Every country on the planet is full of scam artists and frauds. Taking advantage of people who experience death and suffering, like John Edward, peddle lucrative bullshit. Some of them are less talented, and have less success at it. We expect that there will be people out there who want to con us. If the media was solely driven by the pursuit of profit, we might expect them to promote those sorts of scams. After all, “miracle cure for cancer” is an exciting story that will attract readers.

Publishing bullshit is lucrative and easy. Fact-checking those stories is thankless, requires time, effort, and even some competence and intelligence. If preying on the vulnerable is despicable when it’s done by scam artists, it should be no less despicable when unscrupulous media companies support those scams to chase reader’s attention.

Provocative sells better than judicious. I think that accounts at least partially for the media rise of Mallah and Gibson.

The fall of Gibson is a testament to the handful of people who still practice journalism in Australia, even within the corporate media. But the carefully directed outrage, and failure by large media institutions to recognise any of their own wrong-doing, suggests such practices will continue to be rare.

New Matilda

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